When the iPad launched in 2010, people couldn’t seem to figure out what it was for. The New York Times’ David Pogue said, “In 10 years of reviewing tech products for The New York Times, I’ve never seen a product as polarizing as Apple’s iPad.” Tech writers wondered why anyone would want a touchscreen-only computer with no ports other than Apple’s proprietary 30-pin dock. The name was mockingly compared to feminine hygiene products.
Now, some 360 million iPads have been sold, and the “tablet” category is firmly entrenched in the tech world. Far from replacing laptops of smartphones, tablets have become a sort of convenient in-between — more portable than laptops, but more powerful than phones.
But that world would never have come about if not for the bold few in 2010. You may have known some of them — maybe they wouldn’t stop talking about it. Maybe they’re the reason you bought your first tablet.
Those people are the early adopters — the first customers to adopt a new product or technology before the rest of the population catches up. And if you’re introducing a new product or service to the market, you need to know how they think.
The Adoption Curve
The term “early adopters” comes from the 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations, which described the acceptance progress of new technology with a normal distribution curve. It’s made up of five different groups of consumers with varying levels of interest in new technology. Here’s a quick rundown of each group:
The innovators are the first to invest in a product. They’re far more interested — even obsessed — with technology and make it a priority to be on the cutting edge. The downside is that their motivations vary. Maybe they needed your exact product or maybe they just wanted to own the latest and greatest. Either way, it’s hard to draw conclusions from their purchases. They’re also a small group — innovators consist of only about 2.5% of the population.
Early adopters come next, causing a swell in numbers as your sales begin to take off. Early adopters are similar to innovators in that they’re willing to test the waters ahead of the mainstream, but they’re slightly more hesitant — they want to wait until initial reviews come out and innovators have started to report bugs.
This is when sales really start to take off — about a third of your sales will come from the early majority. They waited to hear how the product was received and gave it time to be field tested by the innovators and early adopters. They strongly value the opinions of early adopters, but they’re more risk-averse, so they waited to make sure people were enjoying the product before spending money on it.
The late majority waited until your product was mainstream. They’re the people that started buying smartphones when the innovators were already on their third or fourth generation — after it became clear that the smartphone wasn’t a passing craze. They might be more skeptical of the need to start using something new, but they’re willing to follow a trend when they see it.
Laggards are people who only buy something after the hype has died down — maybe years after it’s been released. Do you know an adult who’s just now getting their first smartphone? That’s a laggard. They might be extremely skeptical of the need for what you’re selling, or they might be out of touch enough to have missed the hype when it first started. Whatever the reason, they’re buying late enough that “everyone knows” what the product is — it’s not news anymore.
Why You Need Early Adopters
Early adopters average just 13% of your total sales, but they’re much more valuable than their numbers indicate. Acquiring early adopters is a vital step in any product release.
They’re willing to take a risk on you with their hard-earned money — that means that their loyalty will be stronger if you reward that risk. They’re also more invested in the product, so they can provide valuable feedback about any issues they find before your product goes fully mainstream. And their early spending can give you a much-needed cash infusion to fund research and development, order advance inventory, or get production costs down.
Early adopters also kick off the spread of word-of-mouth marketing about your product. An increasing number of people in the early and late majority — a much bigger slice of the market — won’t even think about buying a product without asking a friend, colleague, or trusted review site about it. If there’s no one to ask, they won’t spend money.
How to Get Early Adopters on Your Side
Early adopters aren’t investing in your company out of the goodness of their hearts — there are benefits for them that help mitigate some of the risks. First, a lot of them like the thrill of being the first to own a new product or technology. There’s also the chance that they’ll get the jump on the rest of the world, adopting a useful new technology before others have access to it.
But they also expect a top-shelf customer experience. If your product is truly new, there’s no one else to ask about how to use it, take full advantage of it, or fix it. That role will fall to you, and the way you treat your early adopters will have a ripple effect on future mainstream customers.
You’re not expected to treat every customer the way you treat your first customers, but it’s important to walk the line between over-promising and under-delivering. If you tell your early adopters that they’ll always be able to reach a real person on the phone, they’ll expect that service going forward, and you may not be able to provide it. If you don’t provide good service, they may not stick around.
Instead, focus on making sure that the value of your product is obvious. Early adopters are buying what you’re selling because you’re promising a product that didn’t already exist — show them what makes you different from the competition and they’ll be your best advocates.
Living Up to the Hype
On the one hand, early adopters are easier to please — they know that there are likely kinks to iron out, they expect to pay more than future customers, and they know that the support base for a brand-new product won’t be as robust.
But on the other hand, your early adopters are much more important to please. They’re the ones who will keep you off the ground long enough to hit the mainstream, and they’re the ones who will get the ball rolling on the all-important customer feedback loop: touting your product to new mainstream adopters, who will then refer even more people to you themselves.
In order to properly take advantage of your early adopters’ enthusiasm, you’ll need a way to capture their insights. Remember, these are effectively a big pool of product testers. You need to establish a system to solicit and capture their feedback and ideas — then turn those ideas into actionable feedback for your product team. You don’t need to take every suggestion, of course, but you need to track what those suggestions are.
This is a great opportunity to use Customer Success Automation. Watching your early adopters carefully, monitoring exactly how they use your product, collecting their feedback, and making it readily available to the right people in your business are all tasks that can be built into workflows so you don’t miss out on any useful information.
Whether you’re an established company releasing a new product or a whole new company, recruiting a group of early adopters will be vital for your success. You can’t take off without them.